The Underlying Psychology of Office Politics
“All organizations are political – and to some degree, they always will be. The underlying reasons are psychological. First, work involves dealing with people. That means finding a compromise between what they want and what we want; and it’s often a zero-sum game. Second, humans are emotional creatures, biased by unconscious needs and riddled with insecurities. As the great Dale Carnegie, who probably knew more about the art of politics than anyone else, once observed: ‘When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic but creatures of emotions.’
As a result, office politics tend to eclipse formal organizational roles and hijack critical organizational processes, making simple tasks complex and tedious, and organizations ineffective; wearing people out and accounting for a significant portion of work-related stress and burnout. Indeed, we all know people who have perished for their inability to navigate office politics in spite of being talented, hard-working and having the best of intentions. In that sense, one may regard politics as an inevitable force of nature to which we must adapt in order to survive.
This Darwinian take on office politics was first highlighted by the psychologist Robert Hogan, who observed that the universal dynamics underlying workplace relationships boil down to three basic evolutionary needs or ‘master motives.’ First, the need to get along, which promotes cooperation and makes us group-living animals. … Second, the need to get ahead, which results from the power struggle within groups. … Finally, groups – and, especially, large groups like organizations – provide individuals with a formal system for finding meaning. …
Sigmund Freud noted that although humans are social animals, living with others does not come easy. He compared people to a group of hedgehogs during the winter: they need to get close to each other to cope with the cold, but if they get too close they end up stinging each other with their prickly spines. This very rule governs the dynamic of office politics. You can’t go it alone, but working with others does require some discomfort.”